Music to watch grades fly

30th April 2004 at 01:00
Classical music lessons have had a big impact on academic success in one of Scotland's most deprived areas, reports Katrina Tweedie

The number of music pupils at Garnock Academy, in Kilbirnie, North Ayrshire, is well above the national average and they are achieving higher grades in the subject than anywhere else in the country. What's more, classical music has been accredited with improving their all round academic results.

The apparent wondrous powers of music in education has been termed "the Mozart effect" and stems from auditory stimulation research begun in France in the late 1950s. Then a Californian study in 1993 found college students' scores on spatial-temporal reasoning tests improved after listening to Mozart, though others have failed to duplicate the results. It has been speculated that exposure to Mozart's music enhances memory too.

Research on the brain and the effects of Mozart's compositions remains controversial but at Garnock Academy studying music has been having positive results. Teachers even say that learning to play an instrument has inspired pupils who otherwise would have dropped out.

Last year 17 pupils studied Higher level music, 14 achieving A grades and three gaining Bs, which is at least a quarter of a grade better than the national average. Five pupils also studied Advanced Higher music and all gained A results.

The school, which has the third highest free meal entitlement in Scotland and a catchment area covering the deprived rural communities of Dalry and Beith, now has a constant flow of pupils going on to study music in further education.

"It's not just the more affluent youngsters who take up music," says Mae Murray, the head of music and music co-ordinator for North Ayrshire. "Some are from difficult backgrounds and have been extremely behaviourally challenged, yet they react well to the disciplined environment of a choir or band.

"Several could have been excluded from the school, but we tend to use the bands as a lever, warning them that if they want to continue to sing or play then their behaviour throughout the school has to be acceptable. It has a dramatic effect."

The school's bands include a junior band, a junior symphony orchestra, a senior band and a jazz band. Ms Murray, who plays the piano and clarinet, says pop music is not part of the repertoire. "Classical music is more challenging and listening to it gives them a greater love for playing the more demanding pieces like Mozart's Requiem," she explains.

The music and drama department's three full-time teachers, two full-time drama teachers and seven visiting instrumental specialists in woodwind, brass, percussion and orchestral work) liaise with local primary schools to identify promising pupils at an early stage. As well as the standard aptitude tests carried out in all primary schools, Garnock Academy has developed a further test for pupils to catch any S1s with music potential who have slipped through the net.

"The age youngsters become involved in music plays a significant role in their level of success," says Ms Murray.

"Younger children regard the older pupils as role models, which helps them overcome the embarrassment barrier that classical music or choirs are uncool."

Fifth year pupil Darren Clark, aged 16, from Beith, is a percussionist and member of the senior choir. He admits he was facing disciplinary action when he became interested in music lessons in S3.

"I was having problems but music gave me something to help me vent my frustrations. Other subjects are too rigid but I like the freedom we get playing," he says.

Sixth year pupil Fiona Miller, aged 18, who is a percussionist too, will be going on to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, despite being partially deaf and wearing a hearing aid.

Her mother, Julie, from Dalry, says: "Music has given Fiona a great deal of confidence and many opportunities. She has played for the national children's orchestra and done many wonderful things because of the music department.

"There is an incredible energy in the music department and the children want to be there. They are encouraged to practise and do their best and they can see that when they do that they get results."

Headteacher Brian McNaught says North Ayrshire has put a high value on instrumental tuition and provides it free. He attributes pupils' academic success to the self-discipline needed to perform well.

"They often meet at 8am for rehearsals and two or three nights after school, which places a lot of extra demands on their time and self-discipline," he says. "But for the bulk of the pupils, I think, it improves their general academic performance in other subjects, which could be down to the music and mind theory."

Brian Kerr, North Ayrshire's head of instrumental services, is now developing music programmes for under-fives. "Learning to play an instrument helps accelerate the development of motor skills and the hand-eye co-ordination they need for all sorts of other purposes," he says.

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